Friday, August 21, 2009

Why the Press Doesn't Get It

My Sister-in-law, who lives in my old hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, wrote today about the evacuation of the Prudential Center in Boston:
As I sit in the waiting room hearing the reports on the Pru Tower water main break, I'm thinking of the "proper" way to keep people updated. Are there newscaster conferences? Can groups like yours do classes specifically for newscasters to be part of the solution instead of a big problem? Or do they already, and the news people don't listen or show up?

SIL is making an assumption here, which is that newscasters, all things considered, want to do this the "proper" way.  I don't want to say that isn't true, but I will submit to you that that is not their primary goal.

To bring you up to speed, a pipe for the air conditioning system, which runs from water tanks on the 52nd floor all the way down, cracked on the second floor of the Prudential Center, which is the second tallest building in Boston.  Water flooded the mall below, knocked out much of the power and disabled the elevators.  About 2,000 people were evacuated from the building using the stairs, and firefighters had to go fetch some folks who couldn't come down the stairs.  There is water damage on multiple floors (including above the crack) but no one knows how much yet.

There, are you all worried?  Traumatized?  Concerned for the safety of your loved ones who work there?  Probably not.  The fact is that this is a "big" story in that it affects a lot of people in a very well-known building.  But it's actually not a big story in terms of danger or trauma.  It's a big nuisance more than anything else for most people.

So why are the newscasts so breathless? (I encourage you to watch one if you haven't seen them to get a sense of the tone.)  Because the press' number one priority is not to keep people calm.  It is to keep people informed while still keeping them watching.  So they break into the regularly scheduled programming to tell us that this big story has happened, but it's hard to report that something is both important and not a scary situation.  They really only have one model of reporting breaking news, and that is based on situations that are more dangerous, or at least more dramatic, than this one.  And on some level, they are also anticipating that this could become dramatic, or might already be dramatic and they don't know it yet, and if that is true they want to be ready.

As a big story unfolds, the press is trying to report what happened, who it affects, and what will happen next.  The result is that they report the absence of news as news.  They say, "there are no reports of injuries thus far," for example, because people watching want to know if there are any injuries.  But the result of a statement like that is to imply that there could be injuries at any moment.  The elevators are out, so it's going to be a little harder to get those in wheelchairs out, and they report that there are "concerns about the evacuation."  What they mean is that it's not completely straightforward, but what they imply is that it's dangerous.

To answer SIL's question, yes, there are classes that reporters take about disseminating public information.  Some of them are much better at it than others.  But fundamentally, they know you are not going to keep watching the broadcast if they say, "There's some excitement at the Pru, but really it's more of a mess than anything else."

N.B. If you want to ask me a question or suggest a topic for the Quarterback, feel free to leave a comment in the box in the righthand column, or email me at


Colleen said...

I was watching the news and thinking of you and Walter Cronkite. I kind of think that they COULD have it all...well not in this case, because it really was boring, but, say, the 'flu, where they could make people stay with their station, yet actually give useful information....after all, Cronkite did it that way, and he's considered to be among the best.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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